Saturday, December 3, 2011

New wing for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

This month the Tel Aviv Museum of Art opened a parallelogram in concrete and stone designed by Preston Scott Cohen, with pre-cast curved forms on its outside and Israel’s largest exhibition gallery within. The Herta and Paul Amir Building, named for a Los Angeles real estate developer and his wife, adds 195,000 square feet of space to the museum. Founded in 1932, the museum holds the largest collection of modern and contemporary Israeli art, plus iconic works that include Roy Lichtenstein’s 1989 homage to the history of modern art in two huge mural panels.

Situated on a triangular site away from the street and wedged into a cultural campus composed of the city’s public library and an arts center named for Golda Meir, Cohen’s building wasn’t intended to change the skyline of Tel Aviv much. In a country of monuments, the Herta and Paul Amir Building is mostly underground, with three of its five levels below grade. Its concrete walls can be seen as defiant or simply appropriate, considering that travertine is often the material of choice for public buildings in Israel. Yet concrete links the structure materially to much of what is built or going up in Israel’s largest city.

And while the museum is devoted largely to Israeli art, its curtain-raiser shows 18 works by the German artist Anselm Kiefer that were inspired by Jewish mysticism. In Israel, as elsewhere, the design of new art museums can tend toward sculptural city-branding destinations. (A case in point is the Holon Design Museum, a copper-toned spiral designed by Israeli-born Ron Arad, which opened last year in a Tel Aviv suburb.) Yet Cohen’s exterior is an exercise in discretion: local regulations limited the height, and he desert-hued palette of the buildings around it precluded any adventures in color. Inside are rectilinear galleries, organized on multiple axes stacked above one another. Downplaying the structure’s slanted profile as “inconspicuous,” Cohen said he was experimenting with texture on the outer walls of pre-cast concrete. “It’s not a building that shocks you with curves — it’s a subtle distortion of the familiar and normal way that buildings are made,” said the architect, who heads Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and prevailed in an international competition over Tokyo’s SANAA firm, designer of New York’s New Museum among other distinctive buildings. The Tel Aviv Museum’s expansion cost $50 million, said Cohen — “the same cost as the ICA in Boston, but three times the size.” The most overtly dramatic elements of Cohen’s design are diagonal ramps that zigzag from one level to another, evoking Piranesi in acute angles. Cohen and the museum’s director and chief curator, Mordechai Omer, were considering site-specific works to commission for those spaces, but plans were interrupted by Omer’s death in June.

A grand escalator takes visitors down to a space that Cohen calls “The Lightfall,” an atrium 87 feet high. Adjoining it is a gallery of 9,000 square feet, with ceilings rising higher than 21 feet. Like the other galleries in his project, this one is rectangular and adaptable. “We didn’t want all the spaces to have the same mood and typology, but we wanted them all to be flexible within a particular range,” said Cohen. More than 18,500 square feet of additional gallery space is devoted to Israeli art. The architect noted that rectangular galleries avoided encumbering curators with the acute angles and swooping interiors associated with the work of Daniel Libeskind, which “ends up forcing you to exhibit art in the most conventional ways that you could imagine,” he said. Cohen compared his building’s adaptability to the operational principal of a kunsthalle, where galleries accommodate a shifting program of exhibitions. “That was the whole idea of the building, with constantly changing new curatorial arrangements — installations that require big spaces, video, paintings.”

Anselm Kiefer was in Tel Aviv to install and inaugurate the exhibition along with his dealer, Thaddaeus Ropac. The artist added two temporary walls to organize works around the installation piece from which the show takes its name, “Shevirat Ha-Kelim: The Breaking of the Vessels.” That title refers to the shattering of a formerly unified world, represented in Kiefer’s mixed media paintings inspired by Cain and Abel, the stories of Noah and Samson, and the poetry of the Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. Standing in the cavernous space, Kiefer spoke of harmony that existed between Jews and Germans in the early decades of the 20th century, and called his exhibition “an impossible attempt at reunification.” Kiefer will be a hard act to follow in the new building, which was built, among other reasons, to lure major international exhibitions. So will the man who commissioned it, Mordechai Omer, whose death left the Tel Aviv Museum of Art with an empty director’s office that it is still looking to fill.

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